I’ve been having insanely great book luck of late, thanks to comments threads tenderly farmed by very good writers and editors. The first important find was Sarah Caudwell, who is one of those impossibly overdetermined Brits: her brothers are the journalists Alexander and Patrick Cockburn and her mother was the inspiration for Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Sarah Caudwell died in 2000 of stupid cancer. Cancer and I are not friends.
Caudwell wrote four novels. Thus Was Adonis Murdered tackles murder and tax avoidance in Venice; The Shortest Way to Hades examines the legal and tax implications of an inheritance, and a couple of consequent murders, in the Greek Isles. In The Sirens Sang of Murder a homicide investigation moves among several offshore tax havens, including the Channel Islands and the Bahamas, and The Sibyl in Her Grave… well, you get the idea. Caudwell was herself a tax lawyer and has the remarkable gift of making tax law seem almost as cozy and amusing as English murder mysteries.
Received wisdom on Caudwell is that she depends too much on letters and that her central characters are thin. I spit on received wisdom with more vehemence even than usual. Caudwell is a literary writer, as her elaborately classical titles might suggest; intertextual knowledge plays a key role in practically all of the books; and she revels in the epistolatory form almost as much as she loves a good last will and testament. As for her central characters, beautiful Ragwort, scatty Julia, honey-voiced Selena and trickster Cantrip who through no fault of his own attended Cambridge, it’s true that they do not Grow and Change and Have Epiphanies over the course of the novel in the approved American/MFA/Raymond Carver mode; in fact the women especially have lots of hot and inconsequential sex, and everyone drinks and smokes and gossips and skives off work and is just as delightful and irreverent at the end of the book as at the beginning.
The point is that they’re Greek gods, not people as such, a point underscored by the fact that the narrator Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don, is of indeterminate sex. Caudwell is perfectly capable of writing fully human characters. In fact the resolution of each of her quite fiercely difficult mysteries depends on people behaving in absolutely credible, bloody-minded and self-defeating human ways. Now not to brag or anything but I have read a lot of Golden Age detective fiction. I cut my teeth on Conan Doyle and was bored with Agatha Christie at thirteen. I didn’t stop with Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey but read all of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh and their heirs, people like PD James and Kerry Greenwood. It’s very rare for me to get to the last third of a mystery – at least one that’s fair, with no Deus ex Machina, and Caudwell is scrupulously fair – without having solved the crime. Caudwell beat me, four for four; my best showing in the last two books was to get to her penultimate red herring. Yet she always gets there in a plausible way. It is a feat!
There’s such pleasure in being in skilled and confident hands. There’s the subversive thrill of Caudwell’s unabashed snobbery – Hilary can barely understand Cantrip, because of his impenetrable Cambridge dialect. There’s the light yet beautifully sustained humour. Yet the books never become vengeful or sadistic, as it’s so easy for even a great practitioner like Sayers to do, because Caudwell is a humanist to the bone. She is interested in people: what they do, how they behave. There’s a letter at the end of Sibyl that I won’t spoil for you, because of course you’re all going to rush out and read all four, but it is at once a complete surprise and yet absolutely right, the only possible denouement; and almost unbearably sad.
These books are perfect of their kind. I wish very much that there were more.
I was expecting a very bad time of it after Caudwell – there is not much worse than going cold turkey after the death of a beloved author – but I was lucky enough to follow her up with Bridge of Birds, Ha’penny and Bad Magic. None quite reached Caudwell’s heights – I had figured out the end of Bridge half way through – but all gave great character, especially Ha’penny with its host of crypto-Mitfords. And so to bed.